Saturday, October 15, 2016

Alethiometer Deck

In the Dealers' Room at Gaylaxicon this past weekend, I found a promo deck from The Golden Compass movie. The seller had no idea what the cards were like, but at $10 the deck seemed like a pretty low-risk purchase.

Imagine my surprise when upon opening the deck I saw a unique image on every playing card. And not only an image, but a definition of the image. For example, the 7 of Spades is Serpent, an has the legend: "Definition: Evil, Guile, Natural Wisdom". Very nice! The card includes both a traditional meaning and a more Gnostic interpretation of the Serpent.

I believe each card in the deck is meant to represent one symbol from the alethiometer, the most important clockwork device from the first novel in His Dark Materials. The deck could be used as the Action Deck in any Victorian or steampunk Savage Worlds game, or used as a special divinatory Aspect generator in a steampunk-flavored Fate game.

Compared to the disappointment that was the Penny Dreadful Tarot Deck, The Golden Compass playing card deck is a major find and a bargain.

Steam Between Panels

First the good news: Melissa Scott has a new series of pulp era adventures mixing aviation, archaeology, and the supernatural. The books are coauthored with Jo Graham, and the first book in the series, Lost Things, is pictured above. A few books in there's an adventure set during Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia. Good stuff.

I learned about this new series during Eleanor Arnason's excellent interview with Melissa at Gaylaxicon last weekend. What I am writing about today is the fact that their discussion also helped me understand something that happened during my panel on Steampunk and Alt History earlier in the convention.

The steampunk panel featured Amy Griswold, co-author with Melissa Scott of a new steampunky alt history Victorian detective series that starts with Death by Silver, and Ginn Hale, known for her groundbreaking gay-and-sexy steampunk novel Wicked Gentlemen. Our panel was focused on steampunk and alt history as a vehicle for exploring stories centered on the experiences of LGBTQ people and other minorities.

We had a good discussion, sharing a number of anthologies, novels, and RPGs that touch on these forms of representation. I also shared some typologies of steampunk RPGs and the differences in how they deal with the conflicting themes of Empire and cultural diversity. My copanelists shared some really fascinating details on aspects of Victorian life based on their research. Their discussion of the complete lack of consumer protection, and the fact that many consumer products (including food and clothing) were adulterated with poisons and toxic chemicals was particularly intriguing. Urban Victorians lived in a toxic swamp!

There was one moment of awkwardness towards the end of the panel, when an audience member asked if we had read Sterling and Gibson's The Difference Engine.  None of the panelists had read it. I've certainly tried once or twice. I used to feel guilty about this until I figured out that Eleanor Arnason actually introduced a Babbage Engine in an SF&F novel earlier than Sterling and Gibson. See Eleanor Arnason's Daughter of the Bear King (1987).

Eleanor's interview with Melissa Scott brought home a reason why my two co-panelists and I never got around to reading The Difference Engine (1990). They were talking about cyberpunk (Melissa Scott's Trouble and Her Friends was an important work in that genre), and Eleanor mentioned that she was never entirely comfortable with cyberpunk because it had too much Bruce Sterling.

Melissa Scott went on to amplify this point. She talked about writing Trouble and Her Friends as an embodied female response to the kind of masculinist mind-body dualism that we tend to see in cyberpunk, where the male mind prevails over all sorts of adversity, virtual and material. Both Eleanor and Scott highlighted that these same works of fiction (which they felt Sterling's work exemplified) showed white males making the most of the future while women and people of color remained stuck in the underclass.

Now you might agree or strongly disagree with their critique. But it rings a bit true for me when I reflected on the audience surprise in the steampunk panel that none of the panelists had read The Difference Engine.  I know one of the turnoffs for me early in the novel is the female character who is essentially a hostage of the male rogue protagonist. There is a similar turnoff early in A Game of Thrones which has made it difficult for me to make headway with that novel.

So rather than view myself as a "fake fan" or a "fan imposter" for not having read a seminal work, I am now going to consider the fact that a gay guy, and two female authors - each well-versed on steampunk and Victoriana - didn't find that particular "seminal" steampunk work very engaging. There are all sorts of reasons why a particular canon (or Appendix N) is insufficient.

I might still read The Difference Engine, but as I mentioned above, I have already read a good novel with a Babbage Engine. An earlier novel than Gibson & Sterling's.

Credit where credit is due.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Gaylaxicon 2016 Was Great!

Yes, that's General Chang's Bird-of-Prey
that can fire while cloaked!

Gaylaxicon 2016, the national convention for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender fans and their friends happened this weekend in Minneapolis. It was a pleasure to work on the Program Committee and the Concom this summer! The entire Concom were volunteers, and convention chair Don Kaiser and all the committee members worked hard to create a great experience. All that work paid off: Registrations exceeded our target of 250 members, and we sold out the hotel block as well. In spite of many social gains in recent years that have advanced rights for the LGBTQ community, the demand is still there for a national LGBTQ SF&F convention!

My unofficial "eyeball" of participants left me with the impression that the largest group of participants were males. But many women attended the con (and for sure, I hope their numbers grow and grow), and I wouldn't be surprised to hear that the majority of attending authors were women.

There were a couple panels on trans topics, and a several on furry or furry-adjacent themes. There weren't any panel topics that touched on bisexuality, so I the next time around we should do more outreach to both the trans and bi communities.

I could have sworn I took more photos at Gaylaxicon than I did, but this view of the contents of my bag on Saturday AM will give you a sense of the range of topics and panels at this convention :
  •  I moderated two extremely well-attended panels: 
    • "Star Trek at 50": I had two great local fan co-panelists for the first panel, which discuss LGBTQ themes (and characters as we imagine them) across all the Star Trek series and movies. Many participants are excited about the forthcoming new Star Trek series, which will be set in the early Federation. We've been told that the new series will have an out LGBTQ character.
    • "Steampunk and Alternate History, as ways to explore LGBTQ and diversity/inclusiveness."  Authors Ginn Hale (I'm reading her delightful first novel Wicked Gentlemen right now!) and Amy Griswold (currently a writing partner with Melissa Scott on some great books!) were terrific co-panelists, with a solid understanding of Victoriana, steampunk, and related themes. I brought a lot of RPGs as props for this panel, and also shared some relatively new resources on African and Asian steampunk stories and resources, including Filipino steampunk's father, Dean Francis Alfar (read the seminal "Kite of the Stars"), The Sea is Ours Southeast Asian steampunk anthology by Jamie Goh and Joyce Chng; Nisi Shawl's re-envisioning of the Belgian Congo in Everfair, and Bryan Thao Worra's exercises in Laomagination at his On the Other Side of the Eye blog.
  • I attended (at least) three great panels on topics related to Oz. The colorful booklet in my bag is the convention program, with a cover illustration by Eric Shanower. Our convention guests included author/illustrator Eric Shanower and his partner David Maxine, who is an expert on Oz theater and musicals.
  • Don Kaiser did an excellent interview with Gaylaxicon Guest of Honor, and one of my favorite SF&F authors, Eleanor Arnason. If I ever get famous for some reason, I hope I get an interviewer who is as well prepared as Don was!
  • Eleanor Arnason and Ginn Hale did a panel on using the humans to model aliens (which actually turned into a great discussion on animal models for aliens). If you like insects and mollusks this one was not to be missed.
  • I participated in an interactive interview/discussion with Paizo's lead developer, F. Wesley Schneider. Burl Zorn of Source Comics and Games fame led the interview, and there was a lot of opportunity for audience members to engage Wesley in conversation. He made me think differently about the function of iconic characters in RPGs, and if there's interest, I may say more about that.
  • Lyda Morehouse led a hilarious and serious circle discussion on yaoi/yuri manga. Have you seen Lyda's Mangakast blog? If you like anime and manga you should check it out.
I'm sure that there are a lot of other important things to say about the convention, but for now what I can say is that Don Kaiser's moving remarks at the close of the convention rang very true for me. I was having similar thoughts all weekend, in fact. In a nutshell, Gaylaxicon affirmed for me that there continues to be a very important place for LGBTQ genre fans and their friends to be able to create their own spaces to discuss, enjoy, and celebrate the genres that they love. Sure, we've had great advances in civil rights in the last few years, but we still need autonomous spaces where we can develop our own critiques, share resources and recommendations, and enjoy each others' company as fans. 

Oh, and Gaylaxicon had one of the most active gaming spaces that I've ever seen at an SF&F convention!